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My Chinese Train "Nazi"

October 29, 2006

Our lives are the sum of many parts, a significant number of which are other people. Some of those parts can be a bit rusty. Or completely non functional. Or may even be a spanner in the works altogether. In China I met one part that went out of its way to get in the way. Well, that is one interpretation. Another, more kind one, is that she was simply demonstrating how it is that she fights the system. Working within a tight constraint of rules she used those same rules to get her own back. It all happened on the train from Lanzhou to Xining, from which I am recently departed – and gladly.

18 September 2006

Here we are, well and truly belting along on our way to Lanzhou. In a soft sleeper which is turning out to be a bit of a story in its own right. We are sharing our cabin with a corporal in the army. Other than that there is little we can deduce about him – we can’t speak the language and the fact he was in the army was worked out using field hand signals (used by the military), and initially cued by a Chinese language military magazine he was reading. When we got into our cabin he was sitting up on the top bunk and looked a little intimidated by our noisy and boisterous invasion.

A more rustic fellow turned up just before we pulled out. I had planted myself on the top bunk. He came in and parked on the bottom bunk – after first skulling a bottle of beer. Then got on the cell phone and lit up a cigarette, the latter being extinguished after he was requested to do so. After maybe twenty minutes or so he started to get a bit animated – I had not idea what he wanted but suspected he wanted the top bunk. After suggesting he could have it in as many variations of sign language I could invent he and I continued to not comprehend each other. Eventually I had to resort to an American woman travelling on the train who has been in country for four years or so doing language training. She quickly ascertained that he wanted the top bunk!!

We finally cleared my stuff from up there at which point he leapt into his roost, stripped to his underpants, fell backwards and started snoring – in less than a minute. Within about another minute he was talking in his sleep.

I am sitting in the corridor filling in this journal and thinking it will be a long night. However I am not sleepy despite the late hour and this is as good an opportunity as any to catch up on this journal. We glide to a crawl and mechanical sounds of the train drop away. Outside the dusty silhouettes of sheds silently slip past, backlit by orange lights. Industrial sheds and workshops. The train sounds its industrial horn (nothing romantic about this one), we clatter through a set of points, doors slam, flanges pinch and scrape and we jolt to a halt. The train is so long – we are in carriage 10 – that the horn sounded far into the distance. After a few moments we glide on, smooth and without any corresponding starting jolt. Past a stern faced military type with his face cast in shadow, LED bright white torch casting a beam of light forward of his feet. The station is in shadow, dimly lit, dusty and vague, vacant, functional and lifeless. Past a female fat controller standing to attention under a single street light as we glide past, gathering speed, the clack clack, becoming clickety clack. She is wearing a smock of pale blue. It protrudes over her distended stomach, yawn blotting out the lower half of her face, large black spectacle frames blocking out the rest, and a severe bun pulling it all into shape. I can see her thinking she is glad the final train is through, she can chase the uniform off to his barracks (or her bed) and click shut the government issue massive brass padlock on the front door and get out of there! So on we race into the night, sometimes through flashing, dim, orange light, but mostly through the dark, the only hint of speed being the blur of smooth sound which are the wheels on the track.

0030 hours. It is now 1230 am on the 19th. Thirty minutes have passed since the last stop and I feel the very soporific effect of a quiet slowing of the train and the gentleness of its run as we glide through a bend and potentially to another stop. I remain out in the corridor. The policeman has finished prowling and on his last pass had a cup of tea in his hand. I bet he has settled. Other lost passengers have long finished moving up and down. Time, I think, for bed.

0045 hours. Stopped at Baoji. Looks like a million people want on. A small flood of bodies. I may have to get out of this corridor if they decide to use this car as a shortcut to others.

0055 hours. Well, it has been a long time since I have been told to go to bed but I have been so instructed. By the female guard, who I immediately dub “the Carriage Nazi” and who is clearly responsible for the carriage. I am in fact ready for bed and was only in the process of reading earlier entries in this journal. So here I sit and drag out my going to bed. I can see her furtive head poking around her doorway every minute or so to see if I have moved. She has signed “sleep” to me a few times and I have been clever and claimed ignorance of her intent.

Too clever. She got her own back later in the morning. We hammered our way alongside the Yellow River and I awoke to a hazy orange dawn, a clear sky and open paddocks. But as the sun shifted we could more clearly see the tracks ran close to the river because the hills cut in so closely. Agriculture quickly gave way to steaming, smoking industry. Soon we were travelling through enough light to take in the settlements along the track. In some parts the small green plots gave up cabbages in postage stamp sized farms perched on terraces that are clearly coping in what is an arid place. We watched soldiers doing their morning PT, slogging along the road beside us. Workers in a factory slowly filed along the track, swinging their hard hats and chatting with each other. The Yellow River flashed into view every now and then through clay and shale parapets and the occasional tunnel hid everything from view.

Suddenly we were clattering to a stop and people were shifting from their cabins. I was perched between the carriages to get a better view of the country we were travelling through and initially was not aware that we had arrived. Once I realised we were at the last stop (cue – EVERYONE is disembarking) I turned to re-enter my carriage. And there she was, uniform straight, hat on head, badges gleaming, arms folded, foot tapping, glint in her eye, T-bar door key in her hand where I could see it. And the door to the carriage firmly locked. Urgent signing to open the door. Foot taps, eyes glare. Shouts (the glass is “soundproof”) to open the door. Foot taps, eyes glare. Third party intervenes on my behalf. No good – foot still taps and eyes get even more steely. The door is not unlocked in my presence – I turn and press down the length of the neighbouring carriage through the ambling crowd, disembark and run into the tide of passengers back up the platform to return to my cabin. She has vanished. They are good at that after a confrontation – Nazis’ that is. Maybe I will find her in Argentina.

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